Beyond nostalgia | Etnika

Having re-formed world music act etnika with a small international concert tour earlier this year, founding member Andrew Alamango speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the stripped-down iteration of the fan-favourite band ahead of two local gigs next week

Etnika's Andrew Alamango
Etnika's Andrew Alamango

How does it feel to be back on the local stage? Are you simply nostalgic, or is it exciting for other reasons too? 

It is really exciting for us all to be back on stage in Malta as etnika for the first time in eight years. Since our last concert in Valletta in the year 2007, there has been a constant demand for etnika, the music and the concerts for which the band became renowned. The break was probably necessary in view of each of the member having their own professional and musical interests, which have led us to explore, travel and learn in other musical contexts. 

We are excited to play for a local audience and the nostalgia that the band and the music bring, but we are equally excited to play our newly arranged repertoire of a selection of past songs. About a year ago was the time when got together and were toying with the idea of putting some songs together to see how it would sound to be playing them after all these years. 

We put all our resources and ideas together and realised that the music had new and exciting possibilities to be reinterpreted and played again. We also had the same energy and excitement about the songs as in previous years. It sounded fresh and with a new approach to revisiting old tunes. 

So yes, in a way there is an element of nostalgia, however we are just as excited about playing our new show and infusing new life into our songs and rewriting the etnika story. 

You’ve described your approach to new material as ‘thoughtful and contemporary’. What do you mean by this exactly?

This mainly applies to the new arrangements on our songs. In selecting the repertoire for the touring band we thought of selecting a ‘best of’ past etnika songs. This also includes a number of unpublished songs which we were very fond of and some which had been played very little in the past. It was a back to basics approach by minimising the fanfare and frills and re-creating cleaner, neater arrangements which made sense to us as opposed to the past where we relied on numbers and a bigger sound and show. Definitely, the songs sound a lot more ‘up-to date’ in terms of instrumentation and overall sound of the band.

Now that you’re back with a leaner line-up, are there new things you’d like to try out or experiment with? 

Well, I think the back to basics idea implies having less instruments and making the most of the band components. We are utilising elements which we’ve always had, including the creative use of traditional instruments, use and rearrangements of traditional songs and melodies, the use of the Maltese language in a melodic and percussive way. 

Furthermore, the arrangements include use of footwork, hand claps and body percussion derived from the flamenco tradition used as an integral rhythmic base for some of the songs. We are also working with archival audio sources as sound clips and samples which provide an aural and visual element in the show. Finally, we are also focusing on creating atmospheric ambiences through the use of a cappella choruses and keyboards and synth pads.

How were your other international performances received this year? How did people from different countries respond to your music – what attracted them in particular?

The international performances so far have been important and instrumental for us getting back on the road with a set performance and were also good at gauging how the performance works with the audience and as a running set of songs, as well as visually. 

Clearly, the band aims to work as a touring band overseas in world, ethno-music festivals and the like. Our most recent performances in London and Rome were indicative of the success of the performance as a show, which was presented to a totally foreign audience who knew nothing of etnika and its music, Maltese popular music or anything about the culture and language. 

The feedback we got was very positive indeed from an artistic and performance critique as well as form a cultural perspective. We couldn’t have asked for a better response. The London gig was also successful. Organised by the Malta High Commission in London, it was a highly and emotive and energetic experience played to fans, friends, family and diplomatic invitees. 

In this concert too we were met by an enthusiastic audience who were intrigued by the creative use of traditional and new elements, the creative use of language in songs and the overall show being indicative of the cultural melting pot which we belong to. 

These performances we certainly highly encouraging and indicative of the fact that the act could be successful both locally and internationally.

Which are some of your favourite Maltese musicians working today?

Well, I can say that my favourite musicians on the local scene are those from whichever genre, instrument and style who give up everything for music and leave the island for a professional working life in music elsewhere in the quest of learning and performing of music.

Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming recordings? What can fans expect? 

We are definitely considering recording further music as etnika as we have gathered a vast amount of material and ideas from the past and now which we would like to rearrange and document on record. Since the last etnika recording in 2003, Zifna, we have had a huge output of ideas which were only played once or twice throughout the years. 

So yes, we are actively looking for funds, even considering crowd-funding and local arts funds, so as to finance the new etnika chapter in recordings, hopefully by 2016. A long-awaited album, I’d say, hopefully telling and indicative of the ideas and concepts of who etnika is today.

Etinka’s upcoming concert series, ‘Footnotes’ will take place at Blue Box, M Space, Oscar Zammit Street, Msida on August 21 and 22. Doors open at 21:00. Tickets are at €15. More info: [email protected]